FREE Catholic Classes
Ascetics, as a branch of theology, may be briefly defined as the scientific exposition of Christian asceticism. Asceticism ( askesis, askein ), taken in its literal signification, means a polishing, a smoothing or refining. The Greeks used the word to designate the exercises of the athletes, whereby the powers dormant in the body were developed and the body itself was trained to its full natural beauty. The end for which these gymnastic exercises were undertaken was the laurel-wreath bestowed on the victor in the public games. Now the life of the Christian is, as Christ assures us, a struggle for the kingdom of heaven ( Matthew 11:12 ). To give his readers an object-lesson of this spiritual battle and moral endeavour, St. Paul, who had been trained in the Greek fashion, uses the picture of the Greek pentathlon ( 1 Corinthians 9:24 ). The exercises to be assumed in this combat tend to develop and strengthen the moral stamina, while their aim is Christian perfection leading up to man's ultimate end, union with God. Human nature having been weakened by original sin and ever inclining toward what is evil, this end cannot be reached except at the price of overcoming, with God's grace, many and serious obstacles. The moral struggle then consists first of all in attacking and removing the obstacles, that is the evil concupiscences ( concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes, and pride of life), which effects of original sin serve to try and test man (Trid., Sess. V, De peccato originali). This first duty is called by the Apostle Paul the putting off of "the old man" ( Ephesians 4:22 ). The second duty, in the words of the same Apostle, is to "put on the new man " according to the image of God ( Ephesians 4:24 ). The new man is Christ. It is our duty then to strive to become like unto Christ, seeing that He is "the way, and the truth, and the life" ( John 14:6 ), but this endeavour is based on the supernatural order and, therefore, cannot be accomplished without Divine grace. Its foundation is laid in baptism, whereby we are adopted as sons of God through the imparting of sanctifying grace. Thenceforth, it must be perfected by the supernatural virtues, the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and actual grace. Since, then, ascetics is the systematic treatise of the striving after Christian perfection , it may be defined as the scientific guide to the acquisition of Christian perfection, which consists in expressing within ourselves, with the help of Divine grace, the image of Christ, by practising the Christian virtues, and applying the means given for overcoming the obstacles. Let us subject the various elements of this definition to a closer examination.
(1) To begin with, we must reject the false conception of the Protestants who fancy that Christian perfection, as understood by Catholics, is essentially negative asceticism (cf. Seberg in Herzog-Hauck, "Realencyklopädie für prot. Theologie", III, 138), and that the correct notion of asceticism was discovered by the Reformers. There can be no doubt as to the Catholic position, if we but hearken to the clear voices of St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure. For these masters of Catholic theology who never tired of repeating that the ideal of asceticism upheld by them was the ideal of the Catholic past, of the Fathers, of Christ Himself, emphatically state that bodily asceticism has not an absolute, but only a relative, value. St. Thomas calls it a "means to an end", to be used with discretion. St. Bonaventure says that bodily austerities "prepare, foster, and preserve perfection" (ad perfectionem præparans et ipsam promovens et conservans; "Apolog. pauperum", V, c. viii). In proof of his thesis, he shows that to put an absolute value on bodily asceticism would lead to Manichæism. He also points to Christ, the ideal of Christian perfection, who was less austere in fasting than John the Baptist, and to the founders of religious orders, who prescribed fewer ascetic exercises for their communities than they themselves practised (cf. J. Zahn, "Vollkommenheitsideal" in "Moralprobleme", Freiburg, 1911, p. 126 sqq.). On the other hand, Catholics do not deny the importance of ascetic practices for acquiring Christian perfection. Considering the actual condition of human nature, they declare these necessary for the removal of obstacles and for the liberation of man's moral forces, thus claiming for asceticism a positive character. A like value is put upon those exercises which restrain and guide the powers of the soul. Consequently, Catholics actually fulfil and always have fulfilled what Harnack sets down as a demand of the Gospel and what he pretends to have looked for in vain among Catholics ; for they do "wage battle against mammon, care, and selfishness, and practise that charity which loves to serve and to sacrifice itself" (Harnack, "Essence of Christianity"). The Catholic ideal, then, is by no means confined to the negative element of asceticism, but is of a positive nature.
(2) The essence of Christian perfection is love. St. Thomas (Opusc. de perfectione christ., c. ii) calls that perfect which is conformable to its end ( quod attingit ad finem ejus ). Now, the end of man is God, and what unites him, even on earth, most closely with God is love ( 1 Corinthians 6:17 ; 1 John 4:16 ). All the other virtues are subservient to love or are its natural prerequisites, as faith and hope ; Love seizes man's whole soul ( intellect, will), sanctifies it, and fuses new life into it. Love lives in all things and all things live in love and through love. Love imparts to all things the right measure and directs them all to the last end. "Love is thus the principle of unity, no matter how diversified are the particular states, vocations, and labours. There are many provinces, but they constitute one realm. The organs are many, but the organism is one" (Zahn, l. c., p. 146). Love has, therefore, rightly been called "the bond of perfection" ( Colossians 3:14 ) and the fulfilment of the law ( Romans 13:8 ). That Christian perfection consists in love has ever been the teaching of Catholic ascetical writers. A few testimonies may suffice. Writing to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome says ( 1 Corinthians 49:1 ): "It was love that made all the elect perfect; without love nothing is acceptable to God " ( en te agape ateleiothesan pantes oi eklektoi tou theou dicha agapes ouden euareston estin to theo ; Funk, "Patr. apost.", p. 163). The "Epistle of Barnabas" insists that the way of light is "the love of him who created us" ( agapeseis ton se poiesanta ; Funk, l. c., p. 91), "a love of our neighbour that does not even spare our own life" ( agapeseis ton plesion sou hyper ten psychen sou ), and it affirms that perfection is nothing else than " love and joy over the good works which testify to justice " ( agape euphrosyns kai agalliaseos ergon dikaiosynes martyria ). St. Ignatius never wearies in his letters of proposing faith as the light and love as the way, love being the end and aim of faith ("Ad Ephes.", ix, xiv; "Ad Philad.", ix; "Ad Smyrn.", vi). According to the "Didache", love of God and of one's neighbour is the beginning of the "way of life" (c. i), and in the "Epistle to Diognetus" active love is called the fruit of belief in Christ. The "Pastor" of Hermas acknowledges the same ideal when he sets down "a life for God " ( zoe to theo ) as the sum-total of human existence. To these Apostolic Fathers may be added St. Ambrose (De fuga sæculi, c. iv, 17; c. vi, 35-36) and St. Augustine, who regards perfect justice as tantamount to perfect love. Both St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure speak the same language, and their authority is so overpowering that the ascetical writers of all subsequent centuries have faithfully followed in their footsteps (cf. Lutz, "Die kirchl. Lehre von den evang. Räten", Paderborn, 1907, pp. 26-99).
However, though perfection is essentially love, it is not true that any degree of love is sufficient to constitute moral perfection. The ethical perfection of the Christian consists in the perfection of love, which requires such a disposition "that we can act with speed and ease even though many obstacles obstruct our path" (Mutz, "Christl. Ascetik", 2nd ed., Paderborn, 1909). But this disposition of the soul supposes that the passions have been subdued; for if is the result of a laborious struggle, in which the moral virtues, steeled by love, force back and quell the evil inclinations and habits, supplanting them by good inclinations and habits. Only then has it really become "a man's second nature, as it were, to prove his love of God at certain times and under certain circumstances, to practise virtue and, as far as human nature may, to preserve his soul even from the slightest taints" (Mutz, l. c., p. 43). Owing to the weakness of human nature and the presence of the evil concupiscence ( fomes peccati: Trid., Sess. VI, can. xxiii), a perfection that would exclude every defect cannot be attained in this life without a special privilege (cf. Proverbs 20:9 ; Ecclesiastes 7:21 ; James 3:2 ). Likewise, perfection, on this side of the grave, will never reach such a degree that further growth is impossible, as is clear from the mind of the Church and the nature of our present existence ( status vioe ); in other words, our perfection will always be relative. As St. Bernard says: "An unflagging zeal for advancing and a continual struggle for perfection is itself perfection" (Indefessus proficiendi studium et iugis conatus ad perfectionem, perfectio reputatur; "Ep. ccliv ad Abbatem Guarinum"). Since perfection consists in love, it is not the privilege of one particular state, but may be, and has as a fact been, attained in every state of life (cf. PERFECTION, CHRISTIAN AND RELIGIOUS). Consequently it would be wrong to identify perfection with the so-called state of perfection and the observance of the evangelical counsels. As St. Thomas rightly observes, there are perfect men outside the religious orders and imperfect men within them (Summa theol., II-II, Q. clxxxiv, a. 4). True it is that the conditions for realizing the ideal of a Christian life are, generally speaking, more favourable in the religious state than in the secular avocations. But not all are called to the religious life, nor would all find in it their contentment (cf. COUNSELS, EVANGELICAL). To sum up, the end is the same, the means are different. This sufficiently answers Harnack's objection (Essence of Christianity) that the Church considers the perfect imitation of Christ possible only for the monks, while she accounts the life of a Christian in the world as barely sufficient for the attainment of the last end.
FREE Catholic Classes Pick a class, you can learn anything
(3) The ideal, to which the Christian should conform and towards which he should strive with all his powers both natural and supernatural, is Jesus Christ. His justice should be our justice. Our whole life should be so penetrated by Christ that we become Christians in the full sense of the word ("until Christ be formed in you"; Galatians 4:19 ). That Christ is the supreme model and pattern of the Christian life is proved from Scripture, as e.g. from John, xiii, 15, and I Peter, ii, 21, where imitation of Christ is directly recommended, and from John, viii, 12, where Christ is called "the light of the world". Cf. also Rom., viii, 29, Gal., ii, 20, Phil., iii, 8, and Heb., i, 3, where the Apostle extols the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ, for whom he has suffered the loss of all things, counting them but as dung, that he may gain Christ. Of the numerous testimonies of the Fathers we only quote that of St. Augustine, who says: "Finis ergo noster perfectio nostra esse debet; perfectio nostra Christus" (P. L., XXXVI, 628; cf. also "In Psalm.", 26, 2, in P. L., XXXVI, 662). In Christ there is no shadow, nothing one-sided. His Divinity guarantees the purity of the model; His humanity, by which He became similar to us, makes the model attractive. But this picture of Christ, unmarred by addition or omission, is to be found only in the Catholic Church and, owing to her indefectibility, will always continue there in its ideal state. For the same reason, the Church alone can give us the guarantee that the ideal of the Christian life will always remain pure and unadulterated, and will not be identified with one particular state or with a subordinate virtue (cf. Zahn, l. c., p. 124). An unprejudiced. examination proves that the ideal of Catholic life has been preserved in all its purity through the centuries and that the Church has never failed to correct the false touches with which individuals might have sought to disfigure its unstained beauty. The individual features and the fresh colours for outlining the living picture of Christ are derived from the sources of Revelation and the doctrinal decisions of the Church. These tell us about the internal sanctity of Christ ( John 1:14 ; Colossians 2:9 ; Hebrews 1:9 ; etc.). His life overflowing with grace, of whose fulness we have all received ( John 1:16 ), His life of prayer ( Mark 1:21, 35 ; 3:1 ; Luke 5:16 ; 6:12 ; 9:18 ; etc.), His devotion to His heavenly Father ( Matthew 11:26 ; John 4:34 ; 5:30 ; 8:26, 29 ), His intercourse with men ( Matthew 9:10 ; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:22 ), His spirit of unselfishness and sacrifice, His patience and meekness, and, finally, His asceticism as revealed in his fastings ( Matthew 4:2 ; 6:18 ).
B. Dangers of the Ascetical Life
The second task of ascetical theology is to point out the dangers which may frustrate the attainment of Christian perfection and to indicate the means by which they can be avoided successfully. The first danger to be noticed is evil concupiscence. A second danger lies in the allurements of the visible creation, which occupy man's heart to the exclusion of the highest good ; to the same class belong the enticements of the sinful, corrupt world ( 1 John 5:19 ), that is, those men who promulgate vicious and ungodly doctrines and thereby dim or deny man's sublime destiny, or who by perverting ethical concepts and by setting a bad example give a false tendency to man's sensuality. Thirdly, ascetics acquaints us not only with the malice of the devil, lest we should fall a prey to his cunning wiles, but also with his weakness, lest we should lose heart. Finally, not satisfied with indicating the general means to be used for waging a victorious combat, ascetics offers us particular remedies for special temptations (cf. Mutz, "Ascetik", 2nd ed., p. 107 sqq.).
C. Means for Realizing the Christian Ideal
(1) Prayer, above all, in its stricter meaning, is a means of attaining perfection; special devotions approved by the Church and the sacramental means of sanctification have a special reference to the striving after perfection (frequent confession and communion). Ascetics proves the necessity of prayer ( 2 Corinthians 3:5 ) and teaches the mode of praying with spiritual profit; it justifies vocal prayers and teaches the art of meditating according to the various methods of St. Peter of Alcantara, of St. Ignatius, and other saints, especially the "tres modi orandi" of St. Ignatius. An important place is assigned to the examination of conscience, and justly so, because ascetical life wanes or waxes with its neglect or careful performance. Without this regular practice, a thorough purification of the soul and progress in spiritual life are out of the question. It centres the searchlight of the interior vision on every single action: all sins, whether committed with full consciousness or only half voluntarily, even the negligences which, though not sinful, lessen the perfection of the act, all are carefully scrutinized ( peccata, offensiones, negligentioe; cf. "Exercitia spiritualia" of St. Ignatius, ed. P. Roothaan, p. 3). Ascetics distinguishes a twofold examination of conscience : one general (examen generale), the other special (examen particulare), giving at the same time directions how both kinds may be made profitable by means of certain practical and psychological aids. In the general examination we recall all the faults of one day; in the particular, on the contrary, we focus our attention on one single defect and mark its frequency, or on one virtue to augment the number of its acts.
Help Now >
Ascetics encourages visits to the Blessed Sacrament ( visitatio sanctissimi ), a practice meant especially to nourish and strengthen the divine virtues of faith, hope, and charity. It also inculcates the veneration of the saints, whose virtuous lives should spur us on to imitation. It is plain that imitation cannot mean an exact copying. What ascetics proposes as the most natural method of imitation is the removal or at least the lessening of the contrast existing between our own lives and the lives of the saints, the perfecting, as far as is possible, of our virtues, with due regard to our personal disposition and the surrounding circumstances of time and place. On the other hand, the observation that some saints are more to be admired than imitated must not lead us into the mistake of letting our works be weighted with the ballast of human comfort and ease, so that we at last look with suspicion on every heroic act, as though it were something that transcended our own energy and could not be reconciled with the present circumstances. Such a suspicion would be justified only if the heroic act could not at all be made to harmonize with the preceding development of our interior life. Christian ascetics must not overlook the Blessed Mother of God ; for she is, after Christ, our most sublime ideal. No one has received grace in such fulness, no one has co-operated with grace so faithfully as she. It is for this reason that the Church praises her as the Mirror of Justice ( speculum justitioe ). The mere thought of her transcendent purity suffices to repel the alluring charms of sin and to inspire pleasure in the wonderful lustre of virtue.
(2) Self-Denial is the second means which ascetics teaches us (cf. Matthew 16:24-25 ). Without it the combat between spirit and flesh, which are contrary to each other ( Romans 7:23 ; 1 Corinthians 9:27 ; Galatians 5:17 ), will not lead to the victory of the spirit (Imitatio Christi, I, xxv). How far self-denial should extend is clear from the actual condition of human nature after the fall of Adam. The inclination to sin dominates both the will and the lower appetites ; not only the intellect, but also the outer and the inner senses are made subservient to this evil propensity. Hence, self-denial and self-control must extend to all these faculties. Ascetics reduces self-denial to exterior and interior mortification : exterior mortification is the mortification of sensuality and the senses; interior mortification consists in the purification of the faculties of the soul (memory, imagination, intellect, will) and the mastering of the passions. However, the term " mortification " must not be taken to mean the stunting of the "strong, full, healthy" (Schell) life; what it aims at is that the sensual passions do not gain the upper hand over the will. It is precisely through taming the passions by means of mortification and self-denial that life and energy are strengthened and freed from cumbersome shackles. But while the masters of asceticism recognize the necessity of mortification and self-denial and are far from deeming it "criminal to assume voluntary sufferings" (Seeberg), they are just as far from advocating the so-called "non-sensual" tendency, which, looking upon the body and its life as a necessary evil, proposes to avert its noxious effects by wilful weakening or even mutilation (cf. Schneider, "Göttliche Weltordnung u. religionslose Sittlichkeit", Paderborn, 1900, p. 537). On the other hand, Catholics will never befriend the gospel of "healthy sensuality", which is only a pretty-sounding title, invented to cloak unrestricted concupiscence.
Special attention is devoted to the mastering of the passions, because it is with them above all else that the moral combat must be waged most relentlessly. Scholastic philosophy enumerates the following passions : love, hatred, desire, horror, joy, sadness, hope, despair, boldness, fear, anger. Starting from the Christian idea that the passions ( passiones , as understood by St. Thomas) are inherent in human nature, ascetics affirms that they are neither sicknesses, as the Stoics, the Reformers, and Kant maintain, nor yet harmless, as was asserted by the Humanists and Rousseau, who denied original sin. On the contrary, it insists that in themselves they are indifferent, that they may be employed for good and for evil, and that they receive a moral character only by the use to which the will puts them. It is the purpose of ascetics to point out the ways and means by which these passions can be tamed and mastered, so that, instead of goading the will to sin, they are rather turned into welcome allies for the accomplishment of good. And since the passions are inordinate in as far as they turn to illicit things or exceed the necessary bounds in those things which are licit, ascetics teaches us how to render them innocuous by averting or restraining them, or by turning them to loftier purposes.
(3) Labour, also, is subservient to the striving after perfection. Untiring labour runs counter to our corrupt nature, which loves ease and comfort. Hence labour, if well-ordered, persistent, and purposeful, implies self-denial. This is the reason why the Catholic Church has always looked upon labour, both manual and mental, as an ascetic means of no small value (cf. Cassian, "De instit. coenob.", X, 24; St. Benedict, Rule, xlviii, li; Basil, "Reg. fusius tract." c. xxxvii, 1-3; "Reg. brevius tract.", c. lxxii; Origen, "Contra Celsum", I, 28). St. Basil is even of the opinion that piety and avoidance of labour are irreconcilable in the Christian ideal of life (cf. Mausbach, "Die Ethik des hl. Augustinus", 1909, p. 264).
(4) Suffering, too, is an integral constituent of the Christian ideal and pertains consequently to ascetics. But its real value appears only when seen in the light of faith, which teaches us that suffering makes us like unto Christ, we being the members of the mystic body of which He is the head ( 1 Peter 2:21 ), that suffering is the channel of grace which heals ( sanat ), preserves ( conservat ), and tests ( probat ). Finally, ascetics teaches us how to turn sufferings into channels of heavenly grace.
Help Now >
(5) The Virtues are subjected to a thorough discussion. As is proved in dogmatic theology, our soul receives in justification supernatural habits, not only the three Divine, but also the moral virtues (Trid., Sess. VI, De justit., c. vi; Cat. Rom., p. 2, c. 2, n. 51). These supernatural powers ( virtutes infusoe ) are joined to the natural faculties or the acquired virtues ( virtutes acguisitoe ), constituting with them one principle of action. It is the task of ascetics to show how the virtues, taking into account the obstacles and means mentioned, can be reduced to practice in the actual life of the Christian, so that love be perfected and the image of Christ receive perfect shape in us. Conformable to the Brief of Leo XIII, "Testem benevolentiæ" of 22 Jan., 1899, ascetics insists that the so-called "passive" virtues (meekness, humility, obedience, patience) must never be set aside in favour of the "active" virtues (devotion to duty, scientific activity, social and civilizing labour); for this would be tantamount to denying that Christ is the perpetual model. Rather, both kinds must be harmoniously joined in the life of the Christian. True imitation of Christ is never a brake, nor does it blunt the initiative in any field of human endeavour. On the contrary, the practice of the passive virtues is a support and aid to true activity. Besides, it not rarely happens that the passive virtues reveal a higher degree of moral energy than the active. The Brief itself refers us to Matt., xxi, 29; Rom., viii, 29; Gal., v, 24; Phil., ii, 8; Heb., xiii, 8 (cf. also Zahn, l. c., 166 sqq.).
D. Application of the Means in the Three Degrees of Christian Perfection
lmitation of Christ is the duty of all who strive after perfection. It lies in the very nature of this formation after the image of Christ that the process is gradual and must follow the laws of moral energy; for moral perfection is the terminus of a laborious journey, the crown of a hard-fought battle. Ascetics divides those who strive after perfection into three groups: the beginners, the advanced, the perfect; and correspondingly sets down three stages or ways of Christian perfection : the purgative way, the illuminative way, the unitive way. The means stated above are applied with more or less diversity according to the stage which the Christian has reached. In the purgative way , when the appetites and inordinate passions still possess considerable strength, mortification and self-denial are to be practised more extensively. For the seeds of the spiritual life will not sprout unless the tares and thistles have first been weeded out. In the illuminative way, when the mists of passion have been lifted to a great extent, meditation and the practice of virtues in imitation of Christ are to be insisted on. During the last stage, the unitive way, the soul must be confirmed and perfected in conformity with God's will ("And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me": Galatians 2:20 ). Care must, however, be taken not to mistake these three stages for wholly separate portions of the striving after virtue and perfection. Even in the second and the third stages there occur at times violent struggles, while the joy of being united with God may sometimes be granted in the initial stage as an inducement for further advance (cf. Mutz, "Aszetik," 2nd ed., 94 sq.).
E. Relation of Ascetics to Moral Theology and Mysticism
All these disciplines are concerned with the Christian life and its last end in the next world; but they differ, though not totally, in their mode of treatment. Ascetical theology, which has been separated from moral theology and mysticism, has for its subject-matter the striving after Christian perfection ; it shows how Christian perfection may be attained by earnestly exercising and schooling the will, using the specified means both to avoid the dangers and allurements of sin and to practise virtue with greater intensity. Moral theology, on the other hand, is the doctrine of the duties, and in discussing the virtues is satisfied with a scientific exposition. Mysticism treats essentially of "union with God " and of the extraordinary, so-called mystic prayer. Though also those phenomena which are accidental to mysticism, such as ecstasy, vision, revelation, fall within its scope, yet they are by no means essential to the mystic life (cf. Zahn, "Einführung in die christl. Mystik", Paderborn, 1908). It is true that mysticism includes also matter of ascetics, such as the endeavour of purification, vocal prayer, etc.; but this is done because these exercises are looked upon as preparatory to the mystical life and must not be discarded even in its highest stage. Nevertheless, the mystical life is not merely a higher degree of the ascetical life, but differs from it essentially, the mystical life being a special grace granted to the Christian without any immediate merit on his part.
F. Historical Development of Asceticism
(1) The Holy Bible
Abounds in practical instructions for the life of Christian perfection. Christ himself has drawn its outlines both as to its negative and positive requirements. His imitation is the supreme law ( John 8:12 ; 12:26 ), charity the first commandment ( Matthew 22:36-38 ; John 15:17 ); the right intention is that which imparts value to the exterior works ( Matthew 5 - 7 ), while self-denial and the carrying of the cross are the conditions for His discipleship ( Matthew 10:38 ; 16:24 ; Mark 8:34 ; Luke 9:23 ; 14:27 ). Both by His own example ( Matthew 4:2 ) and His exhortations ( Matthew 17:20 ; Mark 9:28 ) Christ recommended fasting. He inculcated sobriety, watchfulness, and prayer ( Matthew 24:42 ; 25:13 ; 26:41 ; Mark 13:37 ; 14:37 ). He pointed to poverty as a means of gaining the kingdom of heaven ( Matthew 6:19 ; 13:22 ; Luke 6:20 ; 8:14 ; 12:33 ; etc.) and counselled the rich youth to relinquish everything and to follow Him ( Matthew 19:21 ). That this was a counsel and not a strict command, given in view of the particular attachment of the youth to the things of this world, is shown by the very fact that the Master had twice said "keep the commandments", and that he recommended the renunciation of all earthly goods only on the renewed inquiry after the means that lead to perfection (cf. Lutz, l. c., against the Protestants Th. Zahn, Bern, Weiss, Lemme, and others). Celibacy for God's sake was praised by Christ as worthy of a special heavenly reward ( Matthew 19:12 ). Yet marriage is not condemned, but the words, "All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given", imply that it is the ordinary state, celibacy for God's sake being merely a counsel. Indirectly, Christ also commended voluntary obedience as a means for attaining the most intimate union with God ( Matthew 18:4 ; 20:22, 25 ). What Christ had outlined in his teachings the Apostles continued to develop. It is especially in St. Paul that we find the two elements of Christian asceticism brought out in well-defined terms: mortification of inordinate desires as the negative element ( Romans 6:8, 13 ; 2 Corinthians 4:16 ; Galatians 5:24 ; Colossians 3:5 ), union with God in all our thoughts, words, and deeds ( 1 Corinthians 10:31 ; Galatians 6:14 ; Colossians 3:3-17 ), and active love of God and our neighbour ( Romans 8:35 ; 1 Corinthians 13:3 ) as the positive element.
(2) Fathers and Doctors of the Church
With the Bible as a basis, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church explained particular features of the Christian life in a more coherent and detailed manner. The Apostolic Fathers called the love of God and man the sun of Christian life, which, animating all virtues with its vital rays, inspires contempt of the world, beneficence, immaculate purity, and self-sacrifice. The "Didache" (q.v.), which was intended to serve as a manual for catechumens, thus describes the way of life: "First, thou shalt love God, who created thee; secondly, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; whatever thou wishest that it should not be done to thee, do not to others." Following probably the "Didache", the so-called "Epistle of Barnabas", written at the end of the second century, represents the Christian life under the figure of the two ways, that of light and that of darkness. Two Epistles, which purport to come from the pen of St. Clement, but were probably written in the third century, exalt the life of virginity, if grounded on the love of God and accompanied by the corresponding works, as heavenly, divine, and angelic. We also mention St. Ignatius of Antioch, of whose letters St. Polycarp says that they contain "faith and patience and all edification in the Lord", and the "Pastor" of Hermas, who in the twelve commandments inculcates simplicity, truthfulness, chastity, meekness, patience, continence, confidence in God, and perpetual struggle against concupiscence. With the third century the works on Christian asceticism began to show a more scientific character. In the writings of Clement of Alexandria and Gregory the Great ("Moral.", XXXIII, c. xxvii; cf. also Cassian, "Coll,", IX, XV) there may be observed traces of the threefold degree which was afterwards systematically developed by Dionysius the Areopagite . In his "Stromata" Clement sets forth the full beauty and grandeur of " true philosophy ". It is particularly remarkable that this author delineates, even in its details, what is now known as ethical culture, and that he endeavours to harmonize it with the example given by Christ. The life of the Christian is to be ruled in all things by temperance. Following out this idea, he discusses in a casuistic form food and drink, dress and love of finery, bodily exercises and social conduct. Beginning with the fourth century, a twofold line of thought is discernible in the works on Christian life: one speculative, laying stress on the union of the soul with God, the Absolute Truth and Goodness; the other practical, aiming principally at instruction in the practice of the Christian virtues. The speculative element prevailed in the mystical school, which owes its systematic development to Pseudo-Dionysius and which reached its highest perfection in the fourteenth century. The practical element was emphasized in the ascetical school with St. Augustine as its chief representative, in whose footsteps followed Gregory the Great and St. Bernard.
It may suffice to detail the principal points on which the writers prior to the medieval-scholastic period dwelt in their instructions. On prayer we have the works of Macarius the Egyptian (d. 385) and of Tertullian (d. after 220), who supplemented his treatise on prayer in general by an explanation of the Lord's Prayer. To these two must be added Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), who wrote "De oratione dominica", and St. Chrysostom (d. 407). Penance and the spirit of penance were treated by Tertullian (De poenitentia), Chrysostom ("De compunctione cordis", "De poenitentia"), and Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) in his second catechetical instruction. That the life of the Christian is a warfare is amply illustrated in St. Augustine's (d. 430) "De agone christiano" and in his "Confessions". Chastity and virginity were treated by Methodius of Olympus (d. 311) in his "Convivium", a work in which ten virgins, discussing virginity, demonstrate the moral superiority of Christianity over the ethical tenets of pagan philosophy. The same subject is discussed by the following Fathers: Cyprian (d. 258); Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) in his "De virginitate"; Ambrose (d. 397), the indefatigable eulogist and champion of the virginal life; Jerome in his "Adversus Helvidium de virginitate" and "Ad Eustachium"; Chrysostom (d. 407) in his "De virginitate", who, though extolling virginity as a heavenly life, yet recommends it only as a counsel; Augustine in his works "De continentia", "De virginitate", "De bono viduitatis".
On patience we have the works of Cyprian, Augustine, and Tertullian's "De patientia", in which he speaks of this virtue as an invalid might speak of health to console himself. Chrysostom's "De jejunio et eleemosyna" discusses fasting. Almsgiving and good works are encouraged in Cyprian's "De opere et eleemosynis" and in Augustine's "De fide et operibus". The value of labour is explained in "De opere monachorum" by St. Augustine. Nor are treatises on the different states of life wanting. Thus St. Augustine's "De bono conjugali" treats of the married state; his "De bono viduitatis" of widowhood. A frequent subject was the priesthood. Gregory of Nazianzus, in his "De fuga", treats of the dignity and responsibility of the priesthood ; Chrysostom's "De sacerdotio" exalts the sublimity of this state with surpassing excellence; St. Ambrose in his "De officiis", while speaking of the four cardinal virtues, admonishes the clerics that their lives should be an illustrious example; St. Jerome's "Epistola ad Nepotianum" discusses the dangers to which priests are exposed; finally, the "Regula pastoralis" of Gregory the Great inculcates the prudence indispensable to the pastor in his dealings with different classes of men. Of prime importance for the monastic life was the work "De institutis coenobiorum" of Cassian. But the standard work from the eighth to the thirteenth century was the Rule of St. Benedict, which found numerous commentators. Of the saint or rather his Rule St. Bernard says: "lpse dux noster, ipse magister et legifer noster est" (Serm. in Nat. S. Bened., n. 2). Illustrations of the practice of Christian virtues in general were the "Expositio in beatum Job" of Gregory the Great and the "Collationes Patrum" of Cassian, in which the various elements of Christian perfection were discussed in the form of dialogues.
(3) The Medieval-Scholastic Period
The transition period up to the twelfth century exhibits no specially noteworthy advance in ascetical literature. To the endeavour to gather and preserve the teachings of the Fathers we owe Alcuin's "De virtutibus et vitiis". But when in the twelfth century speculative theology was celebrating its triumphs, mystical and ascetical theology, too, showed a healthy activity. The results of the former could not but benefit the latter by placing Christian morality on a scientific basis and throwing ascetical theology itself into a scientific form. The pioneers in this field were St. Bernard (d. 1156) and Hugh and Richard of St. Victor. St. Bernard, the greatest mystical theologian of the twelfth century, also holds a prominent place among ascetical writers, so that Harnack calls the "religious genius" of the twelfth century. The basic idea of his works, especially prominent in his treatise "De gratia et libero arbitrio", is that the life of the Christian should be a copy of the life of Jesus. Like
Join the Movement
When you sign up below, you don't just join an email list - you're joining an entire movement for Free world class Catholic education.
Copyright 2021 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2021 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.